Running game gets confidence boost**
After struggling to get the run game up to speed through the first three games, the Broncos broke through against the Vikings in Week 4 for the most balanced attack Denver has had all season.
On the day, the Broncos put up 144 yards on the ground, the most for the team all season. Running back Ronnie Hillman eclipsed the 100-yard mark for 103 yards including a 72-yard running score that ignited the offense.
"You find those creases and hopefully they're home runs. That just happened to be one," Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison said of Hillman's run. "We caught a blitz off the back side. That helped, nobody's chasing it […] and obviously Ronnie's explosive speed [helped]. The guys did a good job, very good job. […] It's just an example of hey, we've got plays called. Each one could be a home run. [We] get what we can, we're fighting, we're finishing the block and we'll go back and get another one."
The offensive line went through some changes the week before due to left tackle Ty Sambrailo's shoulder injury, forcing right tackle Ryan Harris to flip to the opposite side and placing tackle Michael Schofield in at right. Despite the changes on the line, the Broncos saw the most production in the run game so far this season, which Dennison attributes to growing each week.
"I think the guys are just getting a little bit better," Dennison said. "We're still climbing on there. We've still got a ways to go. If they keep growing together and understanding, I think we'll be in good shape. Obviously we know we need to improve. We know we need to get better. I think those guys are really focused on the field. Like today was a very good day in our inside run. Period. They did a very good job as far as getting on people and working the techniques that we've coached."
While the run may have gotten a boost in confidence last week, they'll still face a challenge against Oakland's defense. While the Raiders rank 31st in total yardage allowed, their rush defense ranks No. 11.
Special teams not resting on its laurels
Denver's kick return coverage team may have it easy more than 80 percent of the time because of kicker Brandon McManus. Of McManus' 23 kickoffs this season, 19 have been touchbacks.
"Don't question it. It's helpful," Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis said of McManus' touchback percentage. "The times that we've had to cover, we've covered, and that is what we've got to continue to do. You're not going to be able to hit touchbacks all year. That is the biggest fear when you have a guy that can knock it out all the time is how are you going to be when you cover, when you actually have to cover kicks … I can tell you, looking at the tape, going into the Black Hole, it doesn't go out every time. That's for sure."
The uptick in touchbacks could be responsible for teams allowing larger returns and catching teams off guard, making coverage a point of emphasis for DeCamillis.
"Yeah, I think so. I think you have to emphasize it. I think it's a huge team for you," DeCamillis said. "That's a man-to-man team. That's where toughness evolves from, in my opinion, for those young kids. Guys that do that well, a lot of times they turn into good players. I think that's important to have that mentality for that particular team."
Defense to be tested
The Broncos' defense has posted 18 sacks this season from 11 different players. The Raiders' defense has allowed just five.
So what's the key for Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips and his stout pass rushers? According to Phillips, it's to do just what they did against the Vikings and forcing quarterback Derek Carr to hold onto the ball longer.
"Part of it is good, tight coverage," Phillips said. "We felt like Minnesota got rid of the ball quickly, but if you can get them in situations where it's longer yardage, they have to hold the ball. They're pushing one way to be third-and-short and we're pushing the other way to be third-and-long."
But if Oakland's offense is able to seal off the Broncos, Carr has a couple options at wide receiver. Rookie Amari Cooper leads the team and is complemented by veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Both add a deep threat for Denver's cornerbacks to keep an eye on, and they have helped developed Carr in his second season..
"[Carr] having two really good receivers like that—one veteran receiver that you can count on catching the ball all the time and then the rookie receiver that comes in and does what most rookie receivers don't do by playing really well. Having those two guys just utilizes his talent," Phillips said. "He obviously was talented coming in and played well last year, but now he has two big time receivers."
The receiving corps leads off Thursday's practice gallery, along with shots of the tight ends, linemen and edge rushers.